Sharing Science - Update That Museum Exhibit?

As a museum curator who regularly interacts with non-museum folks, I'll occasionally talk with a person who spots an error or outdated piece of information in a museum exhibit. Maybe the name for a particular species has changed, or perhaps the posture on a skeleton doesn't reflect the latest state of knowledge. Not infrequently, this is followed by a question: "So, when are you going to fix that?"

I have heard this enough from both non-scientists and scientists that I confess a bit of weariness, but I think it also is a great opportunity to discuss the nature of museum exhibits and resources at museums.

First off, I think it's important to say: "Yes, that error bugs me as much as it bugs you!" Ask any museum professional, and they can likely name at least one exhibit or one piece of signage that annoys them. We would change it in a second if we could!

But, exhibits often are very slow to change! In most cases, it comes down to time and money. Fossil skeletons can be hideously expensive to repose or update. If that T. rex has too many fingers, or the fossil horse is in an awkward pose, it's not just a matter of bending a few wires or pushing a few bones around. Real fossil specimens are incredibly delicate, and often even the slightest change to a fossil skeleton could require weeks or even months worth of work. It's not just changing armature--the fossils on the framework may need stabilization or repreparation before they are ready to repose. Even replicas--common at most museums--can be difficult to update. Adjusting armatures and recasting bones takes skill, time, and a surprising amount of money. It's often easiest to just leave things as they are for awhile.

And exhibit labels? In some cases, you can just swap out printed cardstock in the exhibit, and you're good to go. But often for permanent exhibits, labels and explanatory text are printed on special plastic backings, using carefully selected graphical elements and fonts. In many cases, the work is contracted to outside entities. It can be expensive to reprint signage to match the other signs, and as time passes it can be nearly impossible. Maybe it's too convenient of an excuse, but updated signage is expensive and can ruin the "tidy" aesthetic of an otherwise cohesive exhibit.

Museum budgets and staffing are limited, so it's not a small issue to update a display. For this reason, museums will usually leave an exhibit largely intact until a major renovation. This might only happen every 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years. But, it can be a lot "easier" (it's never truly easy) to fundraise and find money for one big chunk of renovation, rather than a never-ending series of smaller updates. A big new exhibit might be an easy sell for a foundation or donor; updating a half dozen signs on an existing exhibit isn't.

So, if you wonder why that exhibit is out of date, it usually isn't because the museum doesn't care! Fortunately, museums do have many work-arounds to help visitors get the most up-to-date experience. Docents and educational staff (and sometimes the scientists themselves) interact directly with the public, and can provide updated context for exhibits. Websites can also provide some of the same information.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is doing a major renovation of their fossil halls right now. They've got a great blog on the process; I encourage all who are interested to check it out to learn a little bit about what it takes to update a museum exhibit!

--Andy Farke is Augustyn Family Curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.
Image credit: Hyaenodon skull on exhibit at the Alf Museum
Posted: 2/17/2016 12:00:00 AM by host | with 0 comments
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